The state of free speech at Lafayette: campus community weighs in


At UConn on Wednesday, a right wing blogger was arrested when his talk, which drew about 100 attendees, among them protesters, ended with him being pulled out of the room by security. This event is one of the latest in which a controversial speaker was brought to a college campus with many questioning why the institution allowed their presence.

When it comes to Lafayette, Vice President of Campus Life Annette Diorio said that the college has more leeway than public institutions about who to allow and who to not allow to come speak on campus, depending on whether or not the speaker falls in line with the college’s mission statement.

Lafayette reserves the right to do review a speaker coming to campus, she said, when internal or outside organizations rent out venues such as Colton Chapel and Kirby Field House. Classrooms, she said, have no review process and only those “internal to the college” can reserve them. She added that she was not aware of any instance in which the college denied a speaker from coming.

In an effort to live up to the college’s mission statement of fostering a “free exchange of ideas,” President Alison Byerly and her cabinet established the Lafayette Symposium, which was first announced at a Nov. 7 faculty meeting, according to Provost Abu Rizvi.

Modeled as a way for students to develop “academically and personally,” as Rizvi put it, the speaker series will not be limited to representing one viewpoint but “all serious intellectual and social traditions — liberal, progressive, atheist, religious, conservative, libertarian (and others).” It will be funded by the President’s Office through the college’s budget, according to Vice President and Liaison to the Board of Trustees Jim Krivoski.

Two speakers, Sigal Ben-Porath of UPenn and Keith Whittington of Princeton University, have been scheduled to visit the college early next semester for the series.

Also aiming to support viewpoint diversity is the Mill Series. An independent charity run by government and law professor Brandon Van Dyck and Abdul Manan ’18, the series is described as “non-partisan” on its website and is meant to expose students to “conservative, libertarian and religious perspectives,” while opening up to criticism “left-wing thought that [has] become pervasive in the modern academy,” the website states.

Manan said that in a space such as Lafayette, discussion should be facilitated no matter the quality of ideas presented.

“It’s really in college when we should be hearing good and bad ideas,” Manan said. “I think there is value in listening to what one may consider bad ideas because otherwise it’s hard to, you never know when it might it be when your idea might be considered bad by a number of people.”

Manan emphasized the importance of not only a speaker’s right to speak but a listener’s right to hear, neither of which he said should be impeded on.

Fayola Fair ’19 said that there is a distinction to be made between having the ability to state your views and being given a platform on which to state them in front of an audience.

“I think a lot of times people conflate the ability to speak and being given space to speak. Me not giving you a space to share your points of view doesn’t necessarily inhibit your free speech,” she said. She added that someone’s right to say whatever they want ends when it becomes a call to harm others, but not all harm that is done unto people is viewed as equal.

Fair pointed to Mill Series speaker Douglas Murray as an example of someone coming to campus who uses the same rhetoric as those who incite violence against Muslims. Murray is critical of rapid mass immigration of Muslims to Europe and believes western European culture is “worth preserving,” as Van Dyck put it.

“If it’s true that Douglas Murray’s presence would lead to an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment and even behavior, I would have a moral obligation to take that into consideration when deciding to invite him,” Van Dyck said. “The point I’m making is that institutions like Lafayette and certainly governmental institutions should not write specific rules that prohibit certain kinds of arguments from being made, because I think that is a dangerous precedent to set.”

Dean of Equity and Inclusion Chris Hunt agreed that banning one group from speaking on campus is a dangerous thing to do.

“We have to be careful about, ‘you can invite this group but you can’t invite that group,’ because the moment you don’t invite the group you don’t like, someone’s going to say [that] you also can’t invite the group that you like,” Hunt said.

Pascual Ventura ’19 and Hunt both said that speakers with academic credentials and a not-widely-held viewpoint to defend are good to have on campus, but Hunt described another “bucket,” as he put it, of speakers “who [come] to any campus to incite fear and to incite violence. I think that’s different than the person who’s coming to debate a particular argument.”

Hunt said he had been reflecting recently on the way in which the phrase “free speech” is used as an excuse for people to say whatever they want, including potentially hurtful and hateful things.

“My fear is sometimes, I wonder—I just wonder, I’m not sure this is it—but I wonder sometimes [if] when we say free speech it means something else. I wonder if it’s really saying it’s free speech, or do you want to use free speech as a way of being able to say ‘I hate this group’ or ‘this group is that,'” he said.

In support of the Mill Series is the Alumni/ae Coalition for Lafayette, central to which is a leadership group of nine alumni. The coalition formed after they became concerned with the faculty letter published in The Lafayette about the results of the president election, members said.

Bruce McDermott, who described the group members as having given generously to the college in the past, said that they are troubled by the lack of viewpoint diversity on Lafayette’s campus, and especially by the silencing of conservative students. He pointed to the Ad Hoc Committee on Ensuring Inclusive Dialogue’s final report, which contained testimonials of conservative students and their experiences being hesitant to share their views, and conversations members have had with students and parents as evidence of the claims.

Jack Bourger, an ACL member who “supports [the Mill Series] financially,” wrote in an email that from his experiences chatting with students on campus he has found free speech “lacking in the classroom.”

“I am very close to not donating to the College I love given the environment I have witnessed,” Bourger wrote. McDermott, too, said he has “put things on hold” in terms of donations due to his concerns, and the group itself has expressed concern over the college’s financial situation.

Daniel Gonzalez ’19 said he has perceived a lack of viewpoint diversity in the classroom, with most professors explaining things in a left-leaning way. However, he said that to alleviate the lack of free speech on campus, he has taken to informal discussions with friends.

“It always comes back to the willingness to hear the other person’s point of view. In many cases, and on this campus as well, it’s just non-existent. If I’m not willing to at least listen to what you’re saying and make counter arguments to it then what’s the point of even having a discussion,” Gonzalez said. Ventura similarly added that on campus, he’s witnessed the same unwillingness to budge from a viewpoint, and he sees it as sad that a campus of so many individual backgrounds can’t cooperate in that way.

Assistant Dean of Students Jennifer Dize recently co-ran a discussion for the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges about the first amendment and free speech on college campuses. She said that something discussed at the LVAIC event was the use of social media as a “new frontier” on free speech.

She said it was “reassuring actually to hear [co-runner of the discussion] Frank Roth say that no one knows right now, that social media is this new animal that the government itself hasn’t even really figured out so the rest of us also still scrambling to figure out where things fall.”

On Nov. 2, Van Dyck posted a Facebook status on the Mill Series account, addressing a student by name. “Exercise for Jovanté Anderson: name something that isn’t white supremacist,” the status reads.

“I don’t view myself as a figure with power or authority, but as one with responsibility. I grade students independently of personal feelings and political or ideological differences. Otherwise, I treat them as adults,” Van Dyck wrote in an email. “I celebrate any student’s right to articulate his or her critiques publicly. I also reserve the right—and, on occasion, choose—to respond. In the Mill Series Facebook post in question, I satirized Jovanté’s use of the concept of white supremacy.”

The post was met with comments from students criticizing its unprofessional nature, to which Van Dyck responded with a laughing minion GIF. Dize said that she is aware of the post but declined to comment any further. She would not say whether this was due to her involvement in investigating the post or because of a lack of knowledge of the situation. Anderson ’19 did not respond for comment in time for print.

“In my view, some students overreacted to my post, and I told them, in a humorous but unapologetic manner, to grow up. If one objects, one is free to say why, and I will listen, although I may not agree,” Van Dyck added.

Byerly wrote in an email that during the last faculty meeting, she talked about maintaining respect during discussions of different points of view.

“I noted at the last Faculty Meeting that the College encourages expression of divergent viewpoints,” Byerly wrote, “but that we expected such expressions to be respectful of individuals, and that any instances of unprofessional behavior would be taken seriously.”